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Kate Spade’s aesthetic was the happy answer to fashion snobbery

The Post's fashion critic Robin Givhan explains how designer Kate Spade transformed the fashion world with bright colors, functional items and affordable luxury (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Kate Warren/The Washington Post)

Kate Spade was never a fancy designer. She was not edgy or avant-garde. But for a particular group of women — her customers, who were legion — she offered precisely the kind of fashion they craved: feminine, pretty and logical.

Her practical but lighthearted designs made sense to women who worked in offices, as well as those whose days involved ferrying children to soccer matches and sitting through parent-teacher conferences. For a time, Spade’s game-changing, often-copied carryall nylon handbags dangled from the wrists of women nearing retirement as well as those whose professional lives had only just begun. With a collection of accessories in cheerful colors, she and her husband, Andy Spade, turned an upstart family company into a multimillion-dollar cultural behemoth.

Fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead in her New York apartment in an apparent suicide. Here's a look back at her career and wildly successful brand. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Kate Spade, 55, was found dead in New York on Tuesday of an apparent suicide.

Obituary: Kate Spade, whose handbags were essential accessories for upscale women, dies at 55

Born in Kansas City, she founded her company in 1993 with her soon-to-be husband. It was a time when much of the highbrow fashion industry was fixated on minimalism and the washed-out, dour aesthetic known as heroin chic. The Kate Spade brand was like a ray of sunshine — an antithesis to pessimism, self-conscious ennui and even the sarcastic humor of her brother-in-law David Spade during his “Saturday Night Live” heyday. The company’s calling card was unabashed optimism.

The brand was also one of the early proponents of accessible luxury. The products were not inexpensive but not jaw-droppingly precious either. The name held prestige, but it wasn’t off-putting.

It’s hard to define precisely why a certain brand gains traction but one could make the argument that Kate Spade was the antidote to fashion snobbery.

The founders eventually sold the company to the Neiman Marcus Group. It changed hands again and endured various corporate reorganizations through the 2000s. But the brand survived and prospered even though Spade and her husband had moved on. It continues to be a go-to for working women who believe a handbag should not cost the equivalent of a month’s mortgage.

As Kate Spade the brand continued to grow and evolve, its namesake stepped away from fashion. She said that she was spending time with her family, including her young daughter Frances, who is now 13.

By 2016, however, the designer had returned to the industry that made her famous with a new company: Frances Valentine — an amalgam of family names. (She had even changed her own name to Kate Valentine Spade.)

From 2016: The artist formerly known as Kate Spade is back — with a new line of sophisticated shoes

“I feel a little nervous coming off that huge run of success,” Spade said at the time of her return.

Her fresh venture had the familiar, chipper sensibility, the same emphasis on preppy style and the same nod to ladylike decorum. But times had changed drastically — and not just in matters of aesthetics. To some degree, Frances Valentine felt like it was from another era, one in which handwritten notes on personalized stationery still had currency and civility was the rule rather than the exception. It was prim.

When Spade previewed the spring 2017 Frances Valentine collection in New York, she acknowledged the challenges of a comeback — both psychological and financial — but noted that she was not defined by her business. The two were separate.

“I always had a good way of disconnecting myself from the company,” Spade said. “I feel proud of what we built, but I’m in a different place. I wasn’t competing with my namesake.”

“It’s not hard for me at all,” she said. “I think it’s harder for other people.”

Consumers do tend to connect the aesthetics of a brand with its designer’s personality. And in today’s celebrity culture, the designer is the brand. She is presumed to embody it. And to a degree, at least publicly, Spade did. She often wore her hair up in a kind of modified beehive or flipped at the ends like a 1950s sorority girl. She favored demure dresses and little cardigans. Her shoes always looked like something from a fairy tale. She exuded good humor.

But that is what designers do. They create a world that is not only believable to consumers, but also enviable. They don’t like to show their effort: That spoils the magic. Spade crafted a vision of fashion that was joyful and welcoming. Countless women took delight in that. And they will remember her for it.